Page last updated at 06:42 GMT, Monday, 8 June 2009 07:42 UK

Profile: US reporters jailed in N Korea

US journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee have been sentenced to 12 years in a North Korean labour prison after being convicted of illegal entry and "hostile acts". The BBC's Michael Dobie looks at the background to the case.

Journalists Euna Lee (L) and Laura Ling
The reporters' families have asked for their speedy release

Laura Ling and Euna Lee are journalists with San Francisco-based Current TV, former US Vice-President Al Gore's media company.

They went to the border between China and North Korea to report on the plight of North Korean refugees who try to escape across the porous frontier into China.

These refugees face arrest if picked up by the Chinese authorities, and are often sent back to be dealt with by the harsh North Korean justice system.

Ms Ling and Ms Lee have now been convicted by this system.

There is still a lot of confusion as to whether they are actually guilty of crossing the border themselves.

According to officials in Pyongyang, guards arrested them on 17 March and accused them of crossing into North Korea illegally.

But the two women claim they had no intention of entering secretive North Korea, and both South Korean media and diplomatic sources say the North's guards crossed into Chinese territory to arrest them.

Urgent plea

As the trial date approached, the journalists' families made a round of appearances on American TV to express their concern.

"We don't know the details of what happened on 17 March, but if at any point the girls went into North Korea, then we apologise on their behalf," Lisa Ling, Laura's sister said on CNN's Larry King Live on Monday.

Tensions are so heated, and the girls are essentially in the midst of this nuclear standoff
Lisa Ling, Laura's sister

Appealing to North Korea, she said: "We beg your government to allow [them] to come home."

Ms Ling's husband, Iain Clayton, read out a letter she had written from captivity: "While I am trying to remain hopeful, each day becomes harder and harder to bear. I am so lonely and scared."

The families are also concerned for the health of Ms Ling, whom they said has an ulcer requiring medical attention.

They have also highlighted the fact that Ms Lee's four-year-old child thinks her mother is still on assignment working.

'High-stakes poker game'

New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who negotiated the release of two Americans from North Korea in 1994 and 1996, said Pyongyang was using Ms Lee and Ms Ling as bargaining chips to secure direct talks with the US.

He told NBC the situation was "a high-stakes poker game".

Sino-Korea Friendship Bridge over the Yanu River in Dandong
North Korea and China share an 880 mile (1,400 km) border

Washington insists it will only hold bilateral talks with Pyongyang under the auspices of the stalled six-party negotiations on North Korea's nuclear programme - which also include South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.

Tensions in the region have soared in recent months, as North Korea has conducted a nuclear test and fired a long-range missile, drawing widespread international condemnation.

The reporters' families and US officials have attempted to separate the nuclear issue from the plight of these two women.

"Our families have been quiet [until now] because the situation is very sensitive and we've been really trying to allow diplomacy to take its course," Lisa Ling - herself a journalist - told CNN.

"Tensions are so heated, and the girls are essentially in the midst of this nuclear standoff."

The Swedish ambassador in Pyongyang has managed three visits to the two reporters, the most recent on 1 June, the US state department said.

The US and North Korea have no diplomatic relations; Sweden represents the US in Pyongyang.

North Korea's state-run news agency, KCNA, says the authorities in Pyongyang are treating Ms Ling and Ms Lee according to international law.

Their families said they understand the two have been appointed a lawyer, but they are still very concerned.

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